Dangerous YouTube Challenges: Fun or Deadly?

“What’s so challenging about cinnamon? ” asks GloZell Green, a comedienne and YouTube personality, before she pours cinnamon into a ladle and proceeds to ingest it in one gulp. Seconds later, viewers watch puffs of cinnamon powder spew from her mouth as though from an erupting volcano. GloZell proceeds to scream and grasp for a pitcher of water from which she frantically pours water down her throat. This is the “Cinnamon Challenge.”

In another YouTube video, GloZell unsuccessfully makes several attempts to insert a condom up through one nostril. This is to be followed by snorting it back through the throat to be coughed out via the mouth. Known as the “Condom Challenge,” this is the most recent of dangerous YouTube dares to gain popularity.

In a third video titled “The Salt and Ice Challenge,” GloZell tries to “exfoliate” by applying salt and ice to her arm for as long as she can stand it. “Oh, my goodness…I froze my skin!” she exclaims in disbelief, after only 75 seconds, and flings the ice off of her skin.

Although at the age of 40 she is about 20-25 years older than most of her online followers, GloZell,has found herself engaging in the most recent trend to become popular with adolescents: YouTube challenges.

GloZell Green, comedienne and YouTube personality.
GloZell Green, comedienne and YouTube personality.

Dangerous YouTube dares are the latest behavioral phenomenon sweeping the nation. Teens are videotaping themselves attempting outrageous activities and then uploading them to the site to gain popularity. According to an article published in the April 22 issue of Pediatrics, videos of adolescents ages 13-24 attempting the “Cinnamon Challenge” received 2.4 million hits in the first half of 2012. These challenges run the risk of serious health consequences and even death, pediatricians warn.

GloZell has experienced first-hand a number of negative consequences from many of the challenges she has attempted. She states that her throat is now more sensitive and scratchy since attempting the “Cinnamon Challenge” more than one year ago. She can no longer hold notes as long when singing, requires throat drops regularly to soothe her throat and becomes short of breath more easily. Similarly, the “Salt and Ice Challenge” left her with extensive scarring on her arm. “I had no idea salt and ice could cause this much disfigurement!” GloZell exclaims.

Although most of the health risks related to the “Cinnamon Challenge” are minor such as coughing and burning of the mouth, nose and throat, more serious side effects such as extensive coughing, nosebleeds, scarring of the lungs and even death from lung collapse or choking can occur. The “Condom Challenge” can similarly cause choking and even death. Seemingly harmless, the “Salt and Ice Challenge” can actually quickly cause second- and third-degree burns with significant nerve damage similar to frostbite.

You may find yourself wondering what drives the continued participation in these dangerous activities when participants such as GloZell have already suffered negative consequences?

GloZell states that she feels a sense of “YouTube peer pressure.” “My fans wanted me to do it and I thought, what’s the big deal about cinnamon?” She further explains, “I figured I got away with the last one so I’ll be fine if I try the next one,” but does acknowledge that “eventually someone is gonna die doing this.”

According to a psychology professor at Emory University Nadine Kaslow,PhD, there are a number of reasons that young adults participate in these challenge activities. “Many succumb to peer pressure,” she says. “They want to look cool and do what others are doing.” Using social media to let others know they have taken the challenge is a way to “get an audience, get recognized, and be seen as popular, funny and powerful.” Young people often believe themselves to be invincible so they are more willing to engage in risky behavior. Some also enjoy taking risks and seeking thrills.

Mark Reineke, PhD, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, explains, “Adolescents often lack good judgment when it comes to decision making because the inhibitory fibers in their brains have not fully matured.” Inhibitory fibers continue to develop until the early to mid-20s and therefore are not successful in deterring adolescents from outrageous actions.

Not only are there physical consequences to these activities, but experts say negative psychological effects also can result. For example, teens may become addicted to the thrill of engaging in risky behavior, which may serve as a gateway to more dangerous behavior.

Experts emphasize that parents can play a major role in deterring teens form engaging in such behaviors. How they speak to their teens about relevant sensitive topics, such as peer pressure, is very important. Giving teens attention for positive things and making sure they feel loved and cared for makes them less likely to rebel and participate in risky activities. Parents need to recognize psychological signs of distress that may lead to such behaviors and seek professional help if necessary. Rather than admonishing their teens, parents should share their concerns about these dangerous behaviors and help them to gain insight about possible risks.

Instead of feeling irresponsible for publicizing herself by engaging in risky YouTube challenges, GloZell says that she does it to promote awareness of the consequences of these types of behaviors. She hopes young people will see her videos and think, “You’re so stupid, you’re so dumb, don’t do it,” rather than copying her. For parents who don’t know that these challenges exist, she hopes her videos will inform them and prompt them to discuss these behaviors with their teens. Her greatest regrets are having completed the “Cinnamon Challenge” and the “Salt and Ice Challenge” due to the chronic sore throat and burn scars she sustained from them respectively. From all of her dalliances with YouTube challenges, she leaves us with the motto, “Don’t do drugs, don’t do cinnamon.”

Submitted by Ami Patel, MD, BMC Hematology Oncology Fellow, PGY IV.

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